Western Pennsylvania community colleges trying to 'live within means'

| Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, 9:03 p.m.

Finances at community colleges have stabilized after a couple of years of funding cuts offset by wage and hiring freezes and other belt-tightening, school leaders said, but they remain worried about what lies ahead.

“I'm not really optimistic, to be honest with you,” Westmoreland County Community College President Dan Obara said. “Students are taking on more and more of the burden, and I'm not sure where that's going to end up.”

In 2011-12, the state cut operating appropriations about 10 percent. Legislators this year restored a proposed 5 percent cut when tax collections came in higher than expected. They kept community college funding at $212 million.

Community College of Allegheny County President Alex Johnson considers the school's situation to be stable, “but that doesn't necessarily mean we won't be facing additional cuts. That's always a challenge.”

Gov. Tom Corbett has just begun to put together the 2013-14 budget proposal he will announce in February, said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education. Speculation about it is premature.

“In these tough economic times, all colleges are encouraged to live within their means and to keep costs low for students,” he said.

Tuition and student fees provide an average 33 percent of revenue for the state's 14 community colleges, but they can generate as much as 45 percent, said Diane Bosak, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission of Community Colleges. The state provides about 20 percent, she said, and county shares vary but average 8.5 percent.

State money for capital projects, grants and other income make up the rest of the revenue.

At CCAC, leaders raised tuition twice since May 2011 to make up for nearly $9.5 million in proposed or actual cuts, though Allegheny County increased property taxes to cover much of that gap for 2012. Students pay $95.50 per credit.

For 2012-13, the county is giving CCAC $25.7 million, about 22 percent of its revenue. The state's $25.4 million in basic funding provides about 22 percent. Tuition will generate $53.7 million, or about 46 percent.

Johnson said the college closed its Downtown center at the end of 2011, saving about $300,000 annually. It froze wages and left jobs vacant, though filled 18 full-time faculty positions this fall.

In Westmoreland, the local contribution dropped from nearly $2.1 million in 2010-11 to nearly $1.6 million this school year.

“Last year was the most difficult financial year in recent history,” said Obara.

Changes in the health care contract with employees reduced health care costs about 20 percent, or $850,000 a year, Obara said. That provided enough money to fill six faculty positions.

Butler County Community College President Nick Neupauer said the institution delayed hiring or reclassified some 12-month positions to eight or nine months.

Staffers share printers to save money — an example of “low-hanging fruit” that's been cut to avoid layoffs.

“But that low-hanging fruit is starting to run out,” he said.

To make budgeting even tougher, enrollment has dropped.

The Butler and Allegheny colleges reported enrollment dips of at least 7 percent, which they call surprising given that enrollment typically increases in a weak economy.

Bosak, with the state commission, acknowledges the colleges are “in a new era, without a doubt.”

“The challenge beyond will be to find ways to continue to provide quality education and training and yet curtail costs,” she said.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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